What is involved in arriving at scientific knowledge about the social world? The position I have consistently taken emphasizes contingency and heterogeneity of the social: the social world is a mixture of diverse processes and structures; it is constituted by socially constituted and socially situated actors, leading to ineliminable features of contingency and heterogeneity; and there are no unified "grand theories" that permit us to capture "the way the social world works". Social phenomena are multi-threaded, multi-causal, and multi-semiotic. So the most we can hope for in the social sciences is to identify some of the threads of change and stability, some of the distinct causes at work, and some of the systems of meaning through which actors frame the world in which they live and act.
So the social sciences can only consist of a large number of separate and largely independent lines of investigation into different strands of social life. And these diverse lines of investigation also correspond to a plurality of methodologies for research. These limited forms of knowledge are enormously valuable, both intellectually and practically -- even though they do not add up to a unified and comprehensive representation of the social world as a whole. Social knowledge is inherently incomplete and incompletable. Weber points to this idea in his essay, "'Objectivity' in Social Science and Social Policy" in The Methodology of The Social Sciences (link):
There is no absolutely "objective" scientific analysis of culture -- or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes -- of "social phenomena" independent of special and "one-sided" viewpoints according to which -- expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously -- they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes. (72)
- Why is Chicago located where it is?
- Why are cities located where they are?
- What are the patterns of residence in cities, and what factors explain these patterns?
- How are features of health status distributed across place and population in cities?
- What kinds of transportation exist in the urban environment, and why?
- How are the necessities of life -- food, water, clothing, ... -- provided in adequate quantities to the population of a city?
- How do people in the city make their livings?
- How are urban services provided, funded, and managed?
- How is the urban population governed?
- How is civil peace maintained in the urban population?
- Why did Detroit, Newark, and Cleveland experience uprisings/race riots in 1967 and 1968?
- What meanings are associated with the design and architecture of a given city by its residents?
- What kinds and frequencies of crimes occur in the city?
- What factors enhance or inhibit crime in cities?